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  • Writer's pictureIlona Oltuski

At the Lera Auerbach Festival in The Hague – A timely unveiling honoring Jewish past and present

Lera Auerbach is a virtuoso pianist, award-winning poet, writer, composer, conductor, and visual artist. As a teenager, the Soviet-born Jewish artist defected during a performance tour and remained in New York on a Juilliard scholarship. She became one of that era’s last artist-dissidents.

Having recently returned from the Lera Auerbach festival in the Hague, I was struck by its timely message of hope and survival in the face of the Hamas October 7th massacre at a music festival in Israel, the resulting intensifying hostilities in the region, and the virulent spike in antisemitism that sent shockwaves throughout the world. Though historically inspired, Auerbach’s latest sculptural work, Silent Psalm, creates a timely impact as the moral lessons of the Holocaust—that civilization may never again permit the infestation of hatred—become newly urgent. The sculpture's unveiling became especially fitting at the well-attended Auerbach festival in The Hague, the seat of the International Court and a standard-bearer for international human rights.

(Photo Credit: Ilona Oltuski – Auerbach unveiling of Sculpture Silent Psalm)

The festival—co-produced by the performing arts center AMARE and festival producer Festival Dag in de Branding—also kicked off the artist’s 50th birthday celebrations, which will continue with international collaborations featuring some of the artist’s friends and colleagues on stages worldwide.

Offering audiences different entry points into the arts, the festival not only featured some of her symphonic and chamber music works—with Auerbach at the piano, as a conductor, and as a composer— but also explored her many creative aptitudes beyond her acclaimed reputation as a composer and musician.

Photo: Nieuwe Kirk, Lera Auerbach (Piano) with Julian Rachlin (Violin) (Photo Credit: Ilona Oltuski)

Photo: Residentie Orkest, Den Haag

At various venues throughout the city, Auerbach’s works were performed and discussed; she conducted, rehearsed, and performed with international musicians, gave master classes, held poetry readings, gave interviews, and opened the exhibition of her bronze sculptures, featured at AMARE. The exhibits included her Rooferisms, Auerbach’s drawings on metal roof tiles*, and her bronze sculptures from private collections in New York, Miami, Vienna, and Berlin.

The sculpture exhibit, titled Transmutations: Between Fragility and Permeance, explored Auerbach’s fascinating play with meaning and material. At once delicate and bold, a quality often ascribed to Auerbach’s music, viewers encountered a universe of contrast and consonance, combining the mundane with the sublime, the personal with the universal.

(Photo Credit: Ilona Oltuski)

Cast in bronze, a material that symbolizes strength and permeability, her sculptures are profoundly rooted in Auerbach’s life experiences and reflect a deep dive into the fragile layers of the human psyche. The highly personal iconographic imagery, which she describes as coming from a place akin to a psychoanalytic process, invites the viewer on a journey through the complexities of human emotions, intellectual discourse, and social narratives.

Auerbach unveiled her latest sculpture, Silent Psalm, for the first time at the festival. Conceived during the process of composing her 6th Symphony, Vessels of Light**—commissioned by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, which premiered this year in Kaunas, Lithuania, and in the U.S. at Carnegie Hall—the sculpture conveys Auerbach’s artistic process of layering conceptual meaning across genres and cultures.

In working with her chosen subjects, Auerbach's rigorous research resembles, at times, that of a scientist and scholar. The lyrics she wrote for her most recent choral work, Flights of the Angagkok, performed at AMARE with the Nederlands Kamerkoor, were based on a linguistic immersion in ancient Inuit dialects, for which Auerbach consulted with local experts, including Uuli Joorut, a culture and language advisor for the work who flew in for its premiere in Amsterdam.

Similar research was required for the libretto for her 6th Symphony, entirely sung in Yiddish by the choir, solo voices, and whisperers, with Auerbach seeking the help of expert Yiddish speakers, including Boris Sandler, as well as her longtime colleague and friend Evgeny Kissin, who helped with the transliteration of texts.

“I chose Yiddish poetry for the libretto—as a tribute to the Yiddish language,” said Auerbach. The Symphony provides the first work of its kind entirely performed in Yiddish. She explains: “The language itself suffered—it lost too many people. The words of the poets penetrate the void, connect generations, guide us, and don't let us forget who we are.” The Symphony weaves together numerous voices of mystical beauty that carry history and manifest the continuity of spiritual strength. In honor and memory of the Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, whose righteous actions saved thousands of Jews during the Holocaust, Auerbach applied the ancient Japanese technique and concept of Kintsugi (golden repair) and connected it with the Jewish concepts of Shevirat ha-Kelim (Breaking of the Vessels), and Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World) to the form of this Symphony and her sculpture.

Offering an artistic discourse on the metaphysical act of breakage and repair, Auerbach not only integrated elements of the two very different Jewish and Japanese cultures but also transcended the artistic character of the work beyond its literal impetus. Kintsugi refers to the ancient Japanese technique of repairing broken pottery by joining the shards and filling the cracks with gold powder glue; thus, instead of hiding the repairs, it emphasizes them, making the objects even more beautiful and precious by celebrating their history and uniqueness.

The symphonic work and the Silent Psalm sculpture are centered around Auerbach’s composition based on Psalm 121 of David, “I lift my eyes to the mountains. Where does my help come from?” The psalm, often used as an amulet of protection and a talisman for travelers during the Middle Ages refers to the Jewish history of the Holocaust. Still, it has gained new relevance in light of recent events and asks us to perform the kinds of courageous acts of people like Sugihara, who risked everything to help others.

The sculpture was born out of the physical act of composing and tearing the sheet of notes apart. The fragments of the music manuscript for the psalm and the process of repairing it with kintsugi became the seeds of the Symphony's musical material and the structure of the sculpture. "After completing the Psalm, I ‘shattered’ it," Auerbach explains. "Its fragmented musical material—without words—appears in the interludes, with the solo cello in a binding embrace, the golden glue that holds the different poems together, making them stronger and creating a sense of unity. The psalm remains unsung in the Symphony, existing only as inscribed in the bronze sculpture, created as an integral part of this memorial," says Auerbach.

Here, Kintsugi is taken more literally. Auerbach repairs the shattered musical manuscript with Kintsugi. The exposed cracks are filled with a patinaed golden thread that appears in the form of a Ma-gen David (Shield) or Star of David. Beneath its Hebrew inscription, the words of the Psalm have been transformed into composed musical notations cast in bronze, sustaining it through time. Beyond spanning a historic arch that binds the suffering and survival of the Jewish people scattered throughout the world, Auerbach’s art addresses the universal state of the human condition as a moral quest for beauty and repair, even amidst destruction and violence.


· Featured in her 2015 publication of aphorisms, titled Excess of Being.

· Auerbach’s 6th Symphony will be premiered in Germany on November 11th with the Dresden Philharmonic, where Auerbach is this season’s “composer in residence.”


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